We have certain preconceptions when thinking about perfume: it’s fragrant, pretty and generally pleasing. Perhaps (if you’re feeling daring) you might opt for something more lushly seductive, but it’s usually thought of as ornamental, luxurious and slightly pretentious, if not a little boring.
Perfume advertising largely features unchallenging, blandly aspirational celebrities. Perfume names denote their floral and agreeable characteristics. You certainly don’t expect to see perfumes with names such as Fat Electrician or I Am Trash - but that is exactly what one unusual Parisian parfumier has decided to call two of their scents.
"The perfume is designed to literally smell like sex: blood, sweat, semen and saliva"
Then again, Etat Libre d’Orange is about as far from a "normal" perfumer as you could possibly hope to find. In conversation, creator Etienne de Swardt invokes everything from the films of Wim Wenders to the poetry of Victor Hugo when discussing their complicated scents, telling me: “I was born a storyteller and not a perfumer."
"I wanted to take perfume on the road less travelled. I wanted to take a radical approach. The idea was existing for a reason, and somehow, at the end, it is a perfume house." Founded in 2006 and based at the intersection of two streets in the third arrondissement of Paris, even the address of Etat Libre d’Orange is vaguely provocative: 69 Rue Des Archives. “I wanted to be at the crossroads of two streets,” de Swardt says, “because I love being on borders like that.”
They take their name from the Orange Free State, an independent Boer republic in southern Africa in the 19th Century (now known as the South African province of Free State). They currently have a collection of 34 scents and describe themselves as a “gallery of avant garde perfumes”.
Perhaps the most controversial of their fragrances is Secretions Magnifiques (or Magnificent Secretions) – a perfume designed to literally smell like sex: blood, sweat, semen and saliva. And the perfume doesn’t not smell like semen – it was enough for one perfume vlogger to describe it as “horrifying”. Personally, I didn’t find it especially enjoyable, but I did find it intriguing: bodily, coppery and complex.
“When I was a young teen I was worried about the AIDS crisis,” de Swardt tells me. “[Secretions Magnifiques] is very connected to the 80s and to the viral risk. I thought about doing a perfume that would smell exactly like the situation, where, you don’t know if you’re going for it, or if you’re protecting yourself from what you want. You are at the point between pornography and romanticism. You are lost between attraction and repulsion. It is a very dual perfume.”
Etat Libre d’Orange’s fragrances are created at Givaudan and Mane laboratories, two internationally renowned perfume laboratories. Both use natural, raw ingredients to create scents. So far, so conventional – except that when it comes to ingredients, Etat Libre d’Orange are pushing the boundaries.
One of their more recent scents, I Am Trash, is the first perfume to be made using recycled elements. Among other materials, the perfume features apples, “because after you have squeezed the apple to get the juice,” de Swardt says, “you still have some elements left over: the olfactory elements are still there, in the pulp.”
Their methods are equally revolutionary. Etat Libre d’Orange worked with Daniela Andrier, a perfumer who previously studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne before starting as a trainee at Chanel, to develop a new method of fragrance creation for the scent. Based on a second extraction from the raw materials it uses gariguette strawberry, bitter orange, rose, green tangerine, sandalwood, cedarwood and patchouli as well as apple. It’s upcycling, but for perfume (the perfume was originally called The End Of My Beautiful Planet). “It’s a good one,” de Swardt adds. “It’s quite slutty.”
"The perfumery hovers at the intersection of beauty and disgust"
I Am Trash was launched with a specially commissioned short film, featuring fruit decomposing in front of viewers’ eyes and worms writhing around fecund matter, before flowers sprout and bloom from the rot. Again, the perfumery hovers at the intersection of beauty and disgust. “We like the contrast,” de Swardt says. “We don’t like absolutism at Etat.”
While this might not be for everyone, Etat Libre’s perfumes have impressed the experts. Marcello Aspria is a Teaching Assistant at Erasmus University Rotterdam, with a research interest in perfume and “smell culture”. He sees many of Etat Libre d’Orange’s perfumes as having roots in the literary Decadent movement.
“Decay and putrefaction has connections with philosophical thought,” he tells me. “I’m thinking of, for example, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. It’s not all beauty, it is also the stuff that hurts, the dark side of life. And where do perfumers get their ideas? Literature and art.”
Aspria sees the brand’s radical approach to perfume making as the industry catching up with other forms of art, admitting perfume can err towards the conservative. At the same time he sees the art world moving the other way, as artists are increasingly using scent and olfaction in performances and installations.
Increasingly, Marcello Aspira says, perfume buyers are collecting a “wardrobe of perfumes”, allowing them to make a different statement with a different scent each day - a statement that “is not always about being pleasing”. Rather, he says, “it is [about] saying this is part of my outfit, my personality, my identity.”
He also notes that people are now buying a lot of their perfumes online, without ever having smelled them - and so the concept behind a scent becomes more important. “Now maybe there is room for true experimentation,” he says. “But could there be a border that you cross?”
To de Swardt of course, the idea of a border posits a challenge. “We go beyond the taboo,” he says. “We make radical creations. We make declarations of independence.” Each fragrance has a narrative.
He tells me one of his favourite Etat Libre d’Orange fragrances is The Afternoon Of A Faun, inspired by ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and composer Debussy. “You know, I once said we are the ultimate consumerist shield to protect yourself against committing suicide,” he says. “The more the world becomes tragic the more you need frivolity to stay alive. We are a true existentialist perfume house - Eyes Wide Shut, or Nose Wide Open.” Existentialist; revolutionary; horrifying - regardless of how you view Etat Libre d’Orange, one thing you could never accuse them of being is boring. Which of course is exactly as de Swardt would want it.
This article originally appeared on Amuse.